[nSLUG] Introducing linux and command-line to Windows users

George N. White III gnwiii at gmail.com
Sun Feb 15 13:37:31 AST 2009

I just returned from helping with a workshop on remote sensing for a small
elite group of young scientists from developing nations.  Many come from an
environment where you can get a DVD for current versions of COTS apps for
a few dollars, and have no programming experience.

All the students were provided with decent laptops that had Windows XP
and Ubuntu 8.10 installed in separate partitions.  Many of the students
found linux was faster than WinXP, I think mainly due to AV scanning
overhead.  The campus had extensive wireless, and Ubuntu worked
well.  There was one core dump from NetworkManager -- a previously
reported problem that is probably a bug in the driver.

I had a couple days before the start of the workshop to introduce
bash, R, and the NASA software.  I started with a bit about the
history and culture of open source -- when you visit a new country
it always helps to learn a bit about the culture:

0) command-line is like a gourmet restaurant kitchen, GUI a vending
machine -- the latter only gives what someone else has put there,
while the kitchen allows you to create fabulous things or disasters.
Science is all about doing new things, so GUI's can be restricting.

1) FSF and Richard Stallman,

2) Cathedral and the Bazaar

3) pointers to linuxcommand.org and other tutorials

4) how to report problems

I tried to do as much as possible using online tutorials to show that
there are resources available to anyone with internet access.  Some
have limited internet access, so it would be nice to have a linux
distro on DVD that includes maximum documentation.  The Ubuntu
DVD was light on docs for R, bash, etc.

A big win for open source was with PowerPoint presentations.  The other
instructors were using PPT presentations from previous courses (we have
done similar courses many times), but had problems with fonts importing into
current versions of PowerPoint, so had to spend a lot of time fixing formatting
problems in slides.  I imported a few of them into OpenOffice.org and saved
as PDF.  There were only a few issues that needed fixing on OpenOffice.org,
and PDF is a much better format for the students to keep for future reference
as there are many viewers for both linux and Windows.

Many scientific journals now require that you provide a license no. when
you publish results obtained using commercial tools, so the access to
commercial software becomes a barrier to publication in a "publish or perish"

We wanted to show them how to use FOSS tools and also introduce them
to the command line: bash, R, and IDL (commercial, but NASA bought a global
runtime license for a package they developed).   We had a number of "practical"
sessions where students were walked thru some typical tasks.  This kept us
busy trying to keep everyone up to the same step.  One annoyance was that
running some of the tasks would open a window that hides the steps
leading up to that point, so the instructor had to remember to stay behind
the slowest student.  There were a few real puzzlers caused by confusion
over zero vs capital "O", "one" vs "ell", etc. copying from a projector.
Some typical misconceptions:

failure to use correct capitalization -- understandable for people with Windows

spaces in paths and filenames -- the NASA application doesn't handle that

Why doesn't bash supply the right program when I enter a filename
(like clicking on
the file in Wndows Explorer?):

$ <filename>

Students often tried to enter bash command-lines in R and vice versa.  They had
used Matlab in a previous workshop, which does allow that for some common
commands, so the confusion may in part be blamed on matlab.

There was constant confusion over directories.  Many assume you need to keep
files in the directory where the program is found.

The course ran for two weeks.  I was impressed that there were no hardware
problems and really minimal software issues.  One was difference in
admin polices between the lab where I work, where we try to ensure that
all users get the same applications and the course environment where
users apps were installed under the users home directory.  A couple
programs use the location of the main application to locate shared libraries.
At home we can compile once and copy the binary to the all the workstations,
but for the course I had to wrap the binaries in a shell script to set the

A couple of the students were using the 64-bit version of Ubuntu.  I had to
recompile one fortran program because they only had the 64-bit gfortran
runtime library.  NASA uses the Intel compiler, and the Intel 32-bit runtime
worked fine.  Many people report they were unable to get the NASA software
to work in 64-bit linux, so it was interesting to find that it worked under

A number of the students were concerned that they would not be able to
run the software when they returned home, so I borrowed and old "unloved
and unwanted" P-III desktop that had been sitting idle to install Ubuntu
and the NASA software.  The first couple attempts to install Ubuntu gave
read errors for the DVD.  This can happen with a reader that has been sitting
a while because the lubricant on the DVD slider accumulates outside the
most used section and then hardens.  Just leaving the machine running a
couple hours was enough to get the DVD working.  Alfter that the installs
went smoothly.  I was using the projector as a display, which meant I had
to use the text install and then use <Ctrl-Alt-Grey+> to switch modes until
I hit one that worked with the projector, and the DVD I used didn't install
a c-shell (NASA has some csh scripts), so I had to install that manually.
I suggested that the students look for a local LUG for help installing
linux.  NASA has an excellent forum with user-to-user support for their
software, so I'm hopeful that the students will be able to arrange ways
to use the software when they return home.

At the end of the workshop the students all did presentations.  I was
very impressed by the quality of the presentations.  Many were able to
use the tools to address real scientific questions in their home regions.
It will be interesting to see how many of them are able to get linux
going when they return home.

George N. White III <aa056 at chebucto.ns.ca>
Head of St. Margarets Bay, Nova Scotia

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